Q: How did you get involved in the New American Initiative?

Aireale Rodgers: I started in high school about three years ago. I’m from Chicago from the southeast side, but I went to high school on the southwest side. A lot of the people who attended this high school were first generation Americans. Their parents are from Mexico. Just hearing their stories, I felt the need to do something. Since I’m African-American, it would seem that immigration would be so far down on the list of my priorities. But since it was such a big priority for my friends, I felt like I needed to do something to help my friends more than just help immigrants. It touched me in a different way. Before I entered college, I was doing an internship with the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP), that works on the Southwest side of Chicago for immigrants rights. We registered people, who had just gotten sworn in as citizens, to vote. Once I got to Northwestern University, as part of its Freshman Urban Program, we went to a youth hostel in downtown Chicago, and then went around to different parts of the city to volunteer in different community organizations. I loved it.

Q: Since you have been involved in immigrant rights before the movement surfaced publicly in December 2005, could you give us your perspective on what happened and what is going on?

Aireale Rodgers: The New American Initiative had been going on for a while but when the immigration reform proposal came up in Congress, we decided that now was the time to do something bigger. For us, this congressional election [of 2006] was the biggest thing. We knew that in order for the government to take us seriously, we had to get out the vote. We had to show that we are no longer playing games.

We are not just marching in the streets. Our tag phrase over the summer became “yesterday we marched and tomorrow we vote.” It really summarizes the whole concept on which the New American Initiative is based. Because the people became more aware of what was going on, it became a bigger movement. It was always existing.

Q: The perception of the December 2005 demonstrations was that the people who marched were undocumented. On the contrary, a study by a team of sociologists at the University of Illinois in Chicago showed, through polls conducted during the marches, that the vast majority of the participants were green card holders or naturalized citizens.
What do you make of that?

Aireale Rodgers: Right now we’re really trying to tell everybody who can to apply for citizenship. We’re not focusing as much on the “Get Out the Vote” program since the next elections are not before 2008, but we’re focusing on getting everybody who can apply for citizenship to do so because the rules about applying are changing. Immigration services is trying to change the test from a multiple choice questionnaire to an essay to be written. Most of the time, the people who apply for citizenship do not speak English well enough to sit down and write a coherent essay. And the price of the application is going to go up by more than 70%, from $400 to $650, by June ’07. We have monthly citizenship workshops in which lawyers and trained volunteers can help people fill out the forms in their native languages. So we’re really trying to promote that to the public.

Q: Where are the people who attend these workshops from?

Aireale Rodgers: We have a lot of Latinos. Mostly Mexicans from Michacan, Idalisco. And we have a few people from Nicaragua, Guatemala, but mostly Mexicans actually.

Q: So far, how many people did the New American Initiative convince to register to vote?

Aireale Rodgers: I can’t remember. But I know that during two weeks, while I was a volunteer, my boss had to go to Mexico and take some time off. So I filled in for her. I remember that at the end of the two weeks, I had registered more than 70 people. That stuck in my mind. It gave me a reason to go into the community and practice. It is really hard for me to just approach people and say, “hola, como estai.” They see somebody with a dark face speaking Spanish and they go, “What are you talking about?” It helped me gain that confidence to go out there and get them to register, practice my Spanish and educate the members of my community about the importance of voting. A lot of times, there are concentrations of undocumented people but their kids have the right to register to vote.
But since their parents can’t vote, they often are less mobilized. The parents don’t really have an incentive to tell their kids to register to vote. Because it won’t do them any good. ICIRR is also working on a comprehensive immigration reform proposition. Under the current law, if someone is undocumented there is no legal path to get legal documents. And there are hundreds of thousands of undocumented people, so there is a need for a route to citizenship. A lot of them are not on visas that they overstayed. They just came.

Truthfully, if my family were here and I could come here to get a better life, but I had to wait for 6 years because of the USCIS backlog…For instance, when I was working in Senator [Richard] Durbin’s office, this person from India wanted to come to the US to give his cousin one of his organs. USCIS turned him down. They told him, “you can’t come. You cut it out and send it over.” So I thought, “if they don’t let somebody come over to give an organ to save the life of one of his family member, why would they let anybody else in?” I think that the current system slightly encourages illegal migration because it does not provide any feasible way for people to enter the country. It is illogical and not fair ultimately.

Q: There is some pressure for immigration policy reform coming from business interests which need a labor force but which expose themselves to legal hardship when they recruit undocumented job applicants. And in many cases, such as in the home building industry or the agricultural sector, businesses “need” undocumented migrants whom they can pay less.

Aireale Rodgers: It makes sense. We need to exploit people, which is horrible, but which is more important.
Most immigrants also do not know their rights. And how could you fight for something that you don’t know you have a right to? That’s another problem.

Q: What do undocumented migrants do in order to protect themselves and their rights?

Aireale Rodgers: They can’t do anything. I was really surprised during the voter registration program to see how open the people I met were. When I went to knock on people’s door and started speaking in Spanish, people would directly answer me and let me know that they could not participate since they did not have papers. Some were really open about it and others were too scared to even answer.

Q: In your exposure to undocumented migrants, do you have any knowledge of USCIS arrests being made at the same time?

Aireale Rodgers: There were raids in some companies. It was ridiculous. The USCIS raided certain companies and detained people. At the time I was working with SWOP. One day, we went to a parish to meet with the priest and talk about future communications about citizenship. While we were there, the priest got a call from a woman whose husband had just been arrested by USCIS. She was crying. I just do not understand how you can do that to people.

Q: How did the USCIS get the information about the companies to be raided ?

Aireale Rodgers: I have no idea. I think that you can pretty much figure it out by yourself. Big factories with large numbers of employees, that’s where a lot of undocumented people work because they manage to slip through the cracks of the system. So you would know not to go to a small place.

Q: When I went to the Immigrant convention in Hillside in July [2006], I was surprised to see very little cooperation actually between the different immigrant communities. Is there cooperation between the diverse immigrant communities within the movement?

Aireale Rodgers: We all know what we want. We evaluate what we have to do to get there. And even though we all come from different countries, we all want the same thing: a comprehensive immigration reform.
That makes us more willing to compromise and to listen to what other people have to say. If this is gonna get us there, we have to do it. This is helping us collaborate with each other. There is cooperation of course. That’s the goal and the function of ICIRR. Various communities regroup at ICIRR and collaborate for a common goal, like the goal of immigration reform.

Q: Do these organizations have different agendas or do they have similar goals in the end?

Aireale Rodgers: They have the same goal. ICIRR is perceived as the center for them. It connects the organizations to each other, but it is also a link to Governor [Rod] Blagojevich and the State of Illinois. All these participants come together at ICIRR for a greater goal.

Q: So what is in this comprehensive immigration reform?

Aireale Rodgers: We want an easier way for people to become citizens. My interpretation is that we strive to tell people what they need to do to become citizens, help them do it, help them register to vote and show them how to help other people in the end. So they would think, “after I got help, it is my responsibility to help someone else in return.” It is a pretty interesting way of working I think.
And it happens that every person we helped wants to come back and help. People are appreciative. We offer free citizenship workshops, English as a Second Language classes, and citizenship classes because you have to have an interview and pass an exam with 100 questions. In the end, the citizenship program takes eight weeks. The last two weeks are devoted to develop leadership skills.
For instance, we don’t teach them only the colors of the US flag or the name of the current president, but we insist on teaching them how to be part of the political process and contact their representative to get their message across. That’s why I love ICIRR and SWOP. For what they do and their seriousness.

Q: Do you know which politicians support this movement?

Aireale Rodgers: {Illinois Senator Richard] Durbin, but also [Illinois Congressman Luis] Gutierrez, [Illinois Senator and Presidential candidate Barack] Obama and [Illinois Governor Rod] Blagojevich.
Overall, politicians will have to lean towards this movement. They see it getting big and powerful.
So they’re going to have to please these populations. That’s where we’re trying to get. So that we don’t have to kiss the politicians’ butt; they have to kiss ours to get our vote. We’re trying to spin the power.

Q: What are you going to do after your graduate?

Aireale Rodgers: I’m going back to work for SWOP hopefully. And I’ll continue to work for the New American Initiative. This is my passion. I can see myself working on this issue for the rest of my life.

Q: What happened to the friends for whom you mobilized in the first place, in high school? Are they involved also in the movement?

Aireale Rodgers: It’s very interesting. No, they’re not. I’ve tried to tell them how important it is. But they’re not concerned. It’s all about finding a way to show people how it affects them and show them why they should care. I started working with SWOP during my junior year in high school. If I had not realized that it affected my friends, I would not have had a reason to care. I’m a citizen.
My mama is a citizen. We did not try to come here. We got shoved on board a boat (she laughs). It’s just about not being so selfish. It does not affect me in particular but it affects everybody. I think that this is the most important thing to remember.

Q: Was there the decisive moment for you? Did something happen to your friends?

Aireale Rodgers: No. I went to a citizenship class and we were sitting around talking about different things. This lady was talking about the fact that she was pregnant when she crossed the border illegally. She lost her baby during the process as she had a miscarriage. I was amazed that somebody would lose her child to come to America and you can’t even get citizenship. What is wrong with this system? Something is WRONG.
There are so many families that are being split up because there is no way for people to gain citizenship. That’s when I said to myself, “this is pathetic, Rodgers do something.”.